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What Is Reactive Abuse?

    * I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

    When an abuser lashes out at a victim, it is very traumatic. Now, it’s important to remember that violence is just one form of abuse. Emotional and verbal abuse are just as stressful and upsetting for victims. But what is reactive abuse?

    After consistent abuse, it can be common for victims to lash out at their abuser as a way to try and fight back. This may involve them screaming, crying, or even getting physical themselves as a form of self-defense.

    What Is Reactive Abuse

    These actions are then used against them by the abuser to ‘prove’ that they are in fact the victim themselves. 

    You may have heard reactive abuse be referred to by its informal name; gaslighting. It is where the abuser tries to use the victim’s reaction as a justification for the abuse they subject them to.

    This can occur in many different situations of abuse but is arguably the most dangerous for those who are sexually assaulted, as they will use this information or power and hold it against them, to try and deter them from coming forward. 

    Why Abusers Will Exploit Reactive Abuse

    An abuser’s end goal can often be to ensure they push their victim to reactive abuse so that they have ‘evidence’ that the abuse is the victim’s fault.

    They will exaggerate the reactive abuse while massively understating the abuse they give out.

    They will often force the victim into reacting and then use those reactions against them in the future, sometimes even months and years after the incident. 

    It is a method that an abuser will use to make the victim feel guilted or shamed into believing they caused or deserved the abuse or violence they received.

    This tactic is often used to keep victims from feeling comfortable coming forward and to also keep them focused on their response to the traumatic events rather than the actual events themselves. 

    What Causes A Victim To Become Reactive?

    Many victims feel deep shame for their reactions to abuse, but this is undeserved. This is a natural defense mechanism or reaction to danger. After all, your body is programmed to try and keep you safe subconsciously.

    It’s a little like how you never decide to pull your hand away when you burn it, you just do it instinctively. When in danger, like you are from abuse, your body will go into flight or fight mode as a stress response. 

    If you feel threatened, and don’t feel like ‘flight’ is an option, your body will prepare to fight back against the danger.

    Responses such as punching, screaming, crying, and kicking are all automatic, so victims should not feel guilt for not having complete control over these actions. 

    What Causes The Assailant To Reactively Abuse?

    It is important to remember that abuse is always abuse, regardless of how a victim reacts. So just because you do not necessarily react the way we speak about in this article, does not mean that you are not being abused. 

    An abuser may shift the blame and gaslight you for many different reasons, but two mental disorders, in particular, create a tendency for this type of behavior.

    Narcissistic Abuse

    Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder that affects how one might view themselves. Narcissists usually display an excessive sense of self-importance and have a very deep desire for attention, while also lacking any empathy for others. 

    Because of this, those with narcissistic personalities struggle to keep healthy relationships. A narcissist is, in their mind, very rarely wrong, everyone else has to be responsible for their own self-motivated actions.

    They will often place the blame on others. 

    While it is not the case for every person with this disorder, narcissists are more likely to engage in abusive behavior and are more likely to manipulate those around them into believing that they are at fault.

    Antisocial Personality Disorder

    Typically, people with this Antisocial Personality Disorder have a tendency to be good actors and liars. They are also as a general rule, more likely to be intimidating or deceitful in their relationship as they struggle to feel remorse for their actions. 

    An abuser with this disorder may have a higher predisposition to engage in reactive abuse.

    This can be quite dangerous for the victims as they are good liars who can manipulate others into believing they are actually the victim and that the victim is the abuser. 

    Effects Of Reactive Abuse

    Reactive abuse, is yet another form of abuse, and so can be very traumatic for victims. It can often make victims feel completely trapped in a relationship that is detrimental to their safety and mental and physical health

    Those who experience reactive abuse are also more likely to form trauma bonds where the victim becomes emotionally attached to their abuser and this can make it much more difficult to walk away. 

    These trauma bonds are often formed through stages of abuse which are followed by extreme remorse which manipulates the victim into believing the abuser will change.

    This combined with manipulating the victim into believing they are also causing abuse, makes them feel trapped into staying in the relationship so that they can both work on their ‘similar faults.’

    But they are not similar, and the abuser is well aware of this. 

    Preventing Reactive Abuse

    While reactive abuse is a natural response, it is important where possible for victims to try and prevent it so that the assailant can not use the reaction to manipulate them in the future. Here are a few other things you can try. 

    1. If you are in the early stages of a relationship where you often find yourself reacting in this manner, try to get out as soon as possible. The earlier you leave, hopefully, the safer it should be to do so.  
    2. As hard as it is, try to always remain as calm as possible in situations. If it is safe to do so, remove yourself from them. Abusers can use negative reactions to gain the upper hand, if you don’t respond they have no power. 
    3. If you are worried for your safety, reach out to a domestic hotline when and where possible it is safe to do so. Family members can also do this for relatives and friends they are concerned about. 

    Final Thoughts on Reactive Abuse

    It is imperative that victims realize that reacting to abuse does not make them an abuser. Reactive abuse is a powerful manipulative tactic that can be used by abusers to trap victims in the relationship. 

    If you fear that you may be a victim of abuse, when it is safe to do so, speak to a family member, friend, or professional (domestic abuse helplines) and reach out for help. 

    If you need a crisis hotline or want to learn more about therapy, please see below:

    For more information on mental health, please see:

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